Monday, January 14, 2019


Two factors are preventing the Sabarimala conundrum from moving towards a solution -- and the self-promoting politics of BJP-RSS forces are too unimportant to be one of them. It's true that Hindutva extremists' political obstructionism drew attention in the early days through violence. Although their campaign was in the name of tradition, they had no compunctions about breaking traditions; a leader climbed the holy steps to deliver a speech. Only when they realised the counter-productive nature of their agitation did they move to Trivandrum with the idea of "relay" fasting which, when we think about it, is a con game: One person lying in a bed for a couple of days without food and then going away to eat while another person takes to the bed, presumably after a hearty meal.

The real reasons behind the crisis continuing in Sabarimala are, first, wrong readings of the issue of discrimination and, secondly, the tactlessness of the chief minister that defies commonsense. Liberal opinion has taken a one-track position based on women's right to equality. According to them, a prolonged campaign was necessary in Kerala to let Dalits enter temples and a similar campaign has become necessary to let women enter Sabarimala.

This is a mixing of issues that have neither historical nor sociological similarities. Dalit oppression, which had reached sadistic levels in Kerala, was based on open, shameless, caste-based discrimination. It violated the basic tenets of any civilised society and had to be brought to an end. Sabarimala's no-woman stance is not a comparable case of discrimination. It is based on faith, tradition and, let it not be forgotten, a High Court ruling in 1991. The court remarked that the practice was there from "time immemorial" because women could not do the mandatory 41-day penance due to menstruation. The present court ruling has to be weighed against the previous one.

More importantly, the no-woman tradition in Sabarimala runs parallel to no-man traditions in other temples. What is considered the largest annual gathering of women in the world takes over the main roads in Trivandrum to cook rice in earthern pots for the Goddess in Attukal temple at Pongala time. Men are barred from participation. In fact, the Attukal temple is known as the Sabarimala of women. Another revered pilgrim centre in Kerala, Chakkulathu Kavu, is also for women only. So is the famous Bhagati Maa temple in Kanyakumari. No one accuses these temples of discrimination against men and there is no campaign for men's equality. By the same token, no one should accuse Swamy Ayyappan's temple of discrimination against women. The space for faith in our lives is legitimate. Those who do not have the faith should not hinder those who have. That is what makes a society free.

As has been said before, "It is natural for an old civilisation to have old practices. Justice is best when it recognises that there is no offence in the logic of the faithful being at variance with the logic of the rationalist".

The second factor that keeps Sabarimala on the boil is Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's haste in helping women to enter Sabarimala. The steps he has taken in the wake of the Supreme Court order and the statements he has made in a stop-me-if-you-can tone reflect a Communist leader's attitude rather than chief minister's. As head of government, he could have gained much by keeping tempers low, ensuring an atmosphere of peace and giving time to various players to adjust to new concepts. But he rushed into action saying that he had no option but to carry out court orders.

A week ago he showed that he did have options. A court order allowed a Christian faction to conduct services in a disputed church. An opposing faction physically prevented this, but the state Government did nothing to ensure that the court order was duly implemented. Evidently the Pinarayi Government picks and chooses cases in which it wants to use the courts and cases where it likes to ignore the judiciary.

Never has Kerala politics been in such a mess. Pinarayi is considered the strong man of politics, but there is no sign of his strength benefiting the state. He cannot even control the faction-ridden police force despite repeated reshuffling of top officers. The Congress is in Trishanku Swarga, not knowing who is its leader and who is not. In the melee, the BJP has outshouted others and matched communist murder politics with its own. These manipulators are only committing sacrilege in the name of the Lord of Sabarimala.

Monday, January 7, 2019


Now that a week has passed, we can reckon how many New Year resolutions have already been broken and how many are left to go down the drain. There is nothing here to feel guilty about. What are New Year resolutions for if not for breaking? Anyway, a brand new New Year will come soon enough enabling us to make a whole new set of resolutions to be freshly broken. After all, the purpose of a new year is not to let us have a new year, as British thinker-writer G.K.Cresterton said. The New Year comes to tell us that "we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet and a new backbone, new ears and new eyes".

If we absorb the spirit of that sound advice, in the first place, we won't make resolutions that bind us to exercise every morning for half an hour, to save ten rupees every day, to drink 12 glasses of water without fail, etcetera. We will be able to look at traffic jams, pickpockets and politicians with new eyes and new nose, drink unsafe water and breathe poisonous air with a new backbone. In other words, we will be able to cope with what we cannot control.

And what about resolutions that should be made but are not? Justice S.R.Sen of Meghalaya High Court recently showed us how to proceed in this area. He said that there should have been a resolution by the makers of modern India to declare the country a Hindu nation. He urged a new resolution that would allow non-Muslims of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to come to India and claim citizenship here. Any takers?

The Union Government, for its part, appears to have resolved to lease out islands in Andaman Nicobar to private firms to build holiday homes for foreign tourists. These are islands the ecology of which is famously fragile. They are also considered important in terms of defence. Until recently there were restrictions, for strategic reasons, on visitors to Andaman-Nicobar. All caution is now gone as the islands are being opened for "private firms". Which are these private firms and how private are the forces behind them?

A resolution that should have been passed with some sense of urgency was one banning misinformation by the Government. Since nothing of the sort was done, the Finance Ministry and the PMO itself have been feeding us with false claims and false statistics.The repeated claims about the success of the Swatch Bharath campaign is an example. This mission, with Mahatma Gandhi's spectacle frame as its logo, grabbed headlines with a show of the Prime Minister sweeping a road. It describes itself as "the world's largest cleanliness drive" with "53,565 pledges taken, 26,565 activities done, 40,651 active participants".

The campaign was launched in October 2014. At the end of four years, how clean is India? Of the 15 most polluted cities in the world, 14 are in India; the capital city of New Delhi hit the headlines in 2018 with the air going noxious. According to Lancet magazine, 1.2 million Indians died in 2017 due to air pollution problems. In the Environmental Performance Index, India ranked 141 out of 180 in 2016. In just two years, it slipped further down to become 177th out of 180. Lakes in Bangalore became a science curiosity by catching fire; accumulated filth had turned into poisonous white foam covering the surface of the water. In the Global Hunger Index India stands 103rd out of 119. The highest number of malnutrition deaths in 2017 took place in India. The highest number of stunted children is also in India. Even the aftermath of the Union Carbide disaster 34 years ago received no attention from the authorities. The remains of the catastrophe that killed 4000 people continue to poison groundwater in the area.

This is how Swatch our Bharath is.

The listing of failures can go on because attempts to deceive citizens have not worked. Ten million jobs were promised, for example, while only 1.4 million materialised, doubling of farm income promised, but only a 5 percent rise materialised. But there is no need to go on because the picture is clear in spite of the usual tricks of denial. India has gone backward, not forward despite the New Years that have come and gone. That reality will prevail even as new promises and new claims rain on us this election season. "Happy New Year" has lost its glamour. It's more relevant to wish "Happy Old Years".

Monday, December 31, 2018


So what were the most indiscreet, absurd, ridiculous and damfoolish statements of 2018? Not that anything this year can overshadow the all-time record set by Mulayam Singh Yadav. Remember his justification of rapes on the ground that boys will be boys? He exposed his Stone Age mentality again when he said, "We should avoid the use of computers and English in India".

The year that is passing did make an effort to keep up, ministers leading the pack. Anant Kumar Hegde said that Sanskrit would be the language of future supercomputers. Haryana minister Anil Vij added that Mahatma Gandhi's image on currency notes brought about devaluation. This was mild compared to a 2008 comment by party colleague Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. His piece of wisdom was: "Women wearing lipstick and powder are the same as J & K terrorists".

Religious rabidness being the fashion of the times, men in power took action that would otherwise have been irregular. The seasoned tactician Shivraj Singh Chauhan elevated five ordained sadhus to minister status and formally anointed them as Minister Babas. That his government fell in the election that followed is a different story. The fall also ended plans for sadhus and temple workers to collect metal for a 108-ft Statue of Wisdom a la the Statue of Unity in Gujarat.

Here are some other sayings of the year. Gujarat's Chief Minister Rupani said Narad Muni was the original Google. Rajasthan's Education Minister Devnani said cows exhale oxygen. Former Uttarkhand Chief Minister Nishank said: "Science is a dwarf in front of astrology. We speak about nuclear science today. But Sage Kanad (Kashyapa) conducted nuclear test one lakh years ago". Union Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh want us to know that "the idea behind yogic farming is to empower the seeds with help from positive thinking. We should enhance the potency of seeds by rays of paramatma shakti". The one and only Biplab Deb of Tripura took up a different topic. He said, "In Mahabharata Sanjaya was blind but he narrated what was happening in the battlefield. This was due to internet technology. Satellites existed during that period". (Sanjaya was not blind, by the way. His king Dhritarashtra was. Sanjaya had divya drishti with which he could see events far away).

The Mughal period of Indian history is something our patriots would like to wish away. But not all Mughal rulers were bad. According to Madanlal Saini, president of BJP in Rajasthan, "when Humayun was dying he called Babur and said, 'If you want to rule Hindustan, you must keep three things in mind -- respect cows, brahmins and women".

Bringing up the rear in 2018 was Kiren Rijiju, a minister who usually tries to strike a modernistic pose. According to him, "the population of Hindus in India is going down because they never convert people while minorities are flourishing". Rijiju is in the Home Ministry. Why doesn't he take steps to put a full stop to conversions? Why not also implement the Honourable MP Sakshi Maharaj's proposal that "every Hindu woman must produce at least four kids to protect Hinduism".

This year's Ignoble Prize for absurd, fatuous, ridiculous statements must of course go to the faceless terrorists who dominate the social media with their reckless threats and warnings. A Carnatic music singer was called a traitor because he was scheduled to sing compositions about "gods of religions other than Hinduism". Actor par excellence Naseeruddin Shah is being pilloried for criticising Hindutva extremism. This is a man who did not even care to know what was his religion until admission problems made him join Aligarh Muslim University. He became a fish out of water there, too. His "crime" this time is that he criticised certain aspects of politics in his country. Like Yashwant Sinha does. Like Arun Shourie does. Like Shatrughan Sinha does. Like Shashi Tharoor does. But criticism from them is okay because their names do not have a Naseeruddin in it. This is unacceptable.

Will India get out of intolerance is the question 2018 leaves behind. The answer will come loud and clear as 2019 gets into stride. Threats to citizens with different opinions will either become the rule of life or a thing of the past depending on how the votes go in a few months from now. We have only one India, an India of multiple faiths, multiple languages, multiple food and dress cultures -- Incredible India. Will the incredible retain its glory?

Happy New Year is not just a greeting this year but a prayer.

Monday, December 24, 2018


"The Hindus wanted Vedas, and they sent for Vyasa who was not a caste Hindu. The Hindus wanted an epic, and they sent for Valmiki, an untouchable. The Hindus wanted a constitution, and they have sent for me". That was B. R. Ambedkar at his biting best. He went on to underline an existential misfortune of India: "The greatest tragedy of the Hindi belt is that the people of that region discarded Valmiki and installed Tulsidas". That was his way of saying that the impact of Ramcharitmanas was negative compared to that of Ramayana. Valmiki told a human tale without propagating any selective morality. Tulsidas turned that tale into a religious text with sanitised spiritual tenets for devotees to follow. Shrewdly Ambedkar showed why the Hindi belt was culturally different, and less tolerant, than the rest of India.

Ambedkar has become a message, as only Mahatma Gandhi has. After their passing, a difference between the two messages slowly developed. Gandhism has been largely contained within its symbolic value, while Ambedkarism has developed into a cult inspiring a growing movement for social and political advancement. The number of Ambedkar statues across India bears witness to it.

And why not, when his observations on various issues continue to strike us as unusually perceptive? Yet another collection of these comments is presented in the Navayana publication rather bafflingly titled, Ambedkar: The Attendant Details. It is a collection of reminiscences that bristle with sagacity, humour and sheer wisdom. We get peeps into many aspects of his life -- his poverty, his addiction to books, his illiterate wife's rustic ways, his Dalit admirers.

"Even though I had become a barrister", he recalls, "the thought of practising law in Bombay made me nervous. No solicitor would accept me as his junior. Finally I took up a job in a commerce college for 150 rupees per month. I faced opposition from various quarters. I gave 50 rupees to my wife for domestic expenses".

His wife Ramabai was a product of timeless traditions. She would walk two miles with a basket of dung cakes on her head, ignoring taunts by local women that the wife of Mr Barrister was carrying dung on her head. Mr Barrister for his part described Ramabai's unique method of financial management. "She would take 30 pieces of paper, put one and a half rupees in each and keep it tied up in a piece of cloth. She kept five rupees aside for contingencies. Come what may, she would never spend more than the contents of one paper packet in one day".

Ambedkar got married when he was 17. But he was Ambedkar and he went on with his education. He used to tell his followers to avoid early marriage so that they could focus on education. Books were his lifelong passion. A follower counted 8000 books in his house in 1938. When Ambedkar died 18 years later, there were 35,000 books. He would have books on the bed, on sidetables near it, on the floor, on his chest as he dozed off.

There was a rush of religious suitors when Ambedkar declared his intention to leave Hinduism. The Nizam of Hyderabad offered Rs 5 crore if he and his followers embraced Islam. The authorities of the Golden Temple explained to him about the equality that prevailed in Sikhism. Christians tried a trick. The British bishop of Bombay took the highfalutin position that there was no point in conversion without conviction. At the same time other bishops, all Britons, wooed him with promises of Jesus Christ's blessings. Ambedkar had no difficulty in turning away from the bishops because he knew that the caste system was a reality in Christianity, too. One of the most learned men of his time, Ambedkar knew that Buddhism was the right refuge for him.

Included in the book are excerpts from a diary kept by Devi Dayal, who looked after Ambedkar's books and sundry household tasks. The title of the diary proclaims its uniqueness: Daily Routine of Dr. Ambedkar. It tells you all about what Babasaheb ate for breakfast (toast, eggs and tea), how he carried newspapers to the dining table, marking items with a red pencil to be cut and preserved, how he could recall from memory which cutting was in which file kept in which cupboard. The Dalit feminist writer Urmila Pawar sums things up in her foreword by saying, "The more we see him in the round, the richer we become", a point that can be made about no leader alive today.

Monday, December 17, 2018


This column has said more than once that the greatness of India lies in its majority community voting, not as Hindus, but as Indians. By far the most dramatic -- and comforting -- confirmation of this has been provided by the latest election results.

The drama is contained in basic population figures. Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh constitute the heartland of Hindu India. In Rajasthan 89 percent of the population is Hindu, in Madhya Pradesh 90 percent and in Chhattisgarh 93 percent. By contrast only 80 percent of the people are Hindu in Uttar Pradesh, only 83 percent in Bihar. Which means that it is the states with the largest number of Hindus that have rejected the BJP. Remember that the BJP had raised its Hindutva pitch as electioneering progressed. The VHP added its bit by holding a massive rally in Delhi demanding Ram Mandir in Ayodhya rightaway. Simple, ordinary voters exercised their franchise to show their disapproval of this communal approach to politics. Their action strengthened India as well as Hinduism. Hindutva's politics of polarisation stood exposed.

The results shocked the party that had come to consider its triple strengths as invincible -- the brilliance of the Prime Minister's oratory, the win-anyhow philosophy of the party president, and the Machiavellian genius of the establishment's legal pundit cum finance minister. Each of them is unmatched in his field. But all of them shared a fatal weakness -- overconfidence that led them to believe they were always right.

They were often wrong. The Prime Minister was wrong in constantly denigrating Jawaharlal Nehru. The first prime minister of the country did make mistakes, but all the statue-building and oratory of the BJP cannot dent Nehru's historical importance as an architect of modern India. Party boss Amit Shah stooped lower still with his contempt for the snakes and mongooses, the dogs and the cats that teamed up against his party. Now that the snakes et al have been approved by the people, will the party chief concede that in the eyes of the citizens of this country, including the majority of Hindus, he is nothing more than an overrated manipulator?

Arun Jaitley is the brainiest of them all and therefore the damage he does goes deepest. He is the only BJP leader to whom Narendra Modi feels obligated. And for good reason. It was Jaitley who first proposed Modi for the chief ministership of Gujarat. It was Jaitley who defended Modi when Prime Minister Vajpayee himself was inclined to "punish" Modi for the Gujarat riots. It was Jaitley who proposed Modi for prime ministership over the objections of seniors like Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Sushma Swaraj. It's no surprise that Jaitley became the most powerful person in the Modi Government despite the fact that he could not win an election.

Every significant political move in the last four years carries the Jaitley stamp. It was he who thought up the Electoral Bonds, a devious way to channel funds anonymously to political parties. The Election Commission itself objected to it, but Jaitley didn't care. His drive to bring the Reserve Bank under the Government's control has been relentless. Urjit Patel's resignation was more shocking than Raghuram Rajan opting not to seek a second term because Patel had initially given the impression that he was pliant and obedient. Evidently even he found the Government's demands unacceptable. These demands boil down to accessing the Reserve Bank's assets for the Government's politically-motivated spending schemes. No other finance minister had taken liberties with the RBI's autonomy and assets. What Jaitley proved in the process was that he had no qualms about distorting even the foundational principles of the country's economic structure for political purposes.

Major policy initiatives of the last four years reflect the same authoritarian approach: Demonetisation that wrecked the lives of citizens in unprecedented ways, Goods & Services Tax that complicated the system instead of simplifying it, inaction on bad loans by banks that benefited party cronies. Arun Jaitley welcomed occasions to dwell on these issues, more than any other party leader. The frequency of his television interviews is an example. On all those occasions he justified every self-centred anti-people move with an air of grandeur that suggested that people who disagreed with him were mentally retarded.

Those people have now told the BJP that communal passions have no place in politics. Will the BJP pay heed, or will it turn vengeful? Power in Delhi is in its hands for another quarter. Power is a hydra-headed beast and a quarter year is a long time. Momentous days are upon us.